Friday, January 12, 2007

Personal Aside: Smart Guy Political Consultants: Often Wrong but Never in Doubt. Often Wrong.

When I started in politics in Minnesota in the `50s, there were no political consultants as such. Candidates decided to run, recruited a campaign manager who in turn hired a speech-writer who was usually the publicist (which is what I did). A business type formed a committee of donors and the candidate in concert with the campaign manager usually recruited an ad agency. Four people told the ad guy how they wanted the campaign to be structured: the candidate, the campaign manager, the finance chair and the publicist. The candidate, of course, was first among equals with the right to override the others and veto the consensus of others. The ad guy did what he was told; if he was exceptionally good, he was allowed to come up with ideas but that was seldom the case: the ad guy was usually good at selling products, not candidates or ideas.

I date the change from 1960 with the Democrats and 1968 with the Republicans. With us, Roger Ailes was the first political consultant; he cut his eyeteeth with Nixon. Before that, do you realize that there was not a media consultant associated as such with the presidential campaigns of Dwight Eisenhower or Adlai Stevenson? There were speech-writers and specialists on political organization but no one who ruled arbitrarily on how the candidate should look, what he should say, what he should not say.

I don’t know how Ailes worked it, never having worked with him…but he was touted as a TV guru, having produced the “Mike Douglas” show on afternoon TV…not an expert on issues or demographics. He came about because Nixon looked so awful on TV in the 1960 debates: and the reason he looked awful was that he was god-awful: beetle-browed with a blue jaw, an artificiality which extended so many layers down, like an onion that one never really understood the real Nixon. Ailes appealed to H. R. Haldeman, the campaign manager, who had been in charge of the Los Angeles office of J. Walter Thompson.

From that time on, the Republican nest has been infested with political consultants. I suppose that’s okay since there is a technique of media that has drastically changed since we partisan working stiffs bought media ourselves out of the campaign treasury (with no commission) and concocted the messages ourselves…but to me the ineffable mystery of political consultants with their noses up in the air who know oh so far more than anyone else including the candidate is a lot of hogwash.

The arrogance of Republican political consultants didn’t start with Ailes but centered somewhat after his time among the media. I think the crest came with Doug Bailey of Bailey-Deardorff in Washington. They handled so-called “liberal” Republicans—Rockefeller, Percy, Ed Brooke, people like that. All political consultants nurture the myth of infallibility. All the rest of us would say, “well, I think”…or “maybe this will work.” Not them. Usually they would demand a straight pipeline to the candidate, ignoring the rest of us as serfs and then the candidate would be ingested with their ideas, coming to us for implementation.

All political consultants…all of them ever since Bailey-Deardorff…speak authoritatively as the voice of God: often proved wrong after election but never in doubt. The worst case of this I ever saw was a guy named Arthur Finkelstein…who allowed his sycophants to call him “Arthur,” who came from New York and touted himself as the guy who elected Al D’Amato. D’Amato, a real schlock if there ever was one—a man with no burden whatsoever of principle—saw that Finkelstein got the choicest accounts when D’Amato became chair of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee.

Finkelstein was the moody genius; one who could throw tantrums, hang up on people and spend hours gazing out the window in a kind of creative meditation with the god of the persuasive arts. He it was who was given the account for Judy Koehler, a conservative state Rep from downstate who on her own happened to upset liberal and moderate candidates for the U. S. Senate nomination against Alan Dixon. How Judy got the nomination was clear. She was a Phyllis Schlafly devotee running against a wide range of mushy moderates including one Dick Carver, the mayor of Peoria, who was regarded as a potential president of the United States but who was a terrible bore, stuffy and filled with bureaucratitis. Judy got nominated the old fashioned way, with no consultant, just a wise selection of conservative activists: pro-lifers, pro-gun rights, economic libertarians, anti-ERA people. But after she got the nomination to oppose Dixon, big Al Schlock D’Amato flew in from New York and declared that if his buddy Finkelstein didn’t get the job and commission, he—D’Amato—would put the kibosh on any D. C. money coming to help Koehler.

As one who was a volunteer in the successful Koehler pre-primary campaign, I was ordered to attend a breakfast at which the moody genius Finkelstein, who had never been downstate in his life, would outline the strategy on a chalk board. He began by saying that he—not Koehler—would paint Dixon as an extreme liberal, near-Communist who in the Senate was a vital danger to the liberty and security of the United States. I started laughing. When he asked me why I was so convulsed, I said that I happened to know Alan Dixon quite well and that he was far from such a danger…moreover were he to be painted in such crimson tones, Dixon might write a check personally to Finkelstein to encourage him more in his follies. Finkelstein looked at me as if I were deranged and then said, “next question.”

But Judy was entranced, her face burning with excitement. That was the last time I ever saw her except for a glimpse on TV when she conceded what was probably the most inept campaign in the state—up to the time Topinka ran for governor, that is. But on the afternoon of the election, Finkelstein took the first plane out of town complaining that his instructions had not been followed to the letter because the stupid Republican party was not able to raise sufficient funds with which to further fatten his commissions.

One thing that did not cling to Arthur Finkelstein was sanctimoniousness. He was regarded as one who would do anything and everything to win an election. The people with the high-class, patrician attitude were Bailey-Deardorff in Washington who had worked for Chuck Percy, Jim Thompson, Olympia Snowe and a host of other squishes from the eastern seaboard. Bailey was reported to be so brilliant that the average mortal could not fully comprehend the brilliance with which his light shone—rather like having to wear sunglasses so as to protect your eyes because each insight was to be savored as filled with sublime intelligence. Of course he was hired to advise that neophyte of politics Gerald Ford who was then president and seeking to overcome a challenge from Ronald Reagan. Bailey couldn’t understand the nature of the Reagan appeal in 1976 but whatever he said was gospel and Ford’s people dutifully took notes as the Great Man—Bailey—strode around the conference room, his hand to his eyes so as to ward off a headache from dealing with aberrant mortals, dictating his strategy. A strategy which when applied against Jimmy Carter failed dismally. Still after that election, Ford was perceived as the dunce and Bailey still resident genius.

If there was anyone regarded in liberal Republican lore as more brilliant than Bailey it was his partner Deardorff. Deardorff, however, was regarded as even more liberal than Bailey and hence was used only in extreme cases when liberal voters absolutely had to be enticed to vote Republican. So it was when Bernard Epton won the primary to run for mayor and the Democratic candidate was Harold Washington. Deardorff stalked in to the meeting and laid out a strategy that was an opaque as it was nihilistic. No one could understand it. Then the next thing I heard, even Deardorff acknowledged that something else had to be done—something non-opaque and vibrant. I had dropped out of even caring by then but what was the strategy that Deardorff devised?

What was the strategy? Epton had been one of the most liberal Republicans in the House, elected from Hyde Park in that weird triangular Illinois ballot that required three state Reps from each district…he emerging as the Republican from Hyde Park…a Republican so lefty that he was indistinguishable from the usual Democratic lefty—a lefty not unlike the most subversive, radical Republican I ever knew, State Rep. Susan Catania who was also from the south side. Anyhow the TV ads were produced and they caused a sensation—a sensation that very nearly got Epton elected as the first Republican mayor of Chicago since 1932. The slogan, as devised to face the first black man to run for mayor in Chicago history was this:


My God, any blue-collar circa 1960s barroom racist could come up with it, pandering to the worst instincts of human racism. And just like Finkelstein, Deardorff the genius, was out of Chicago before the mayoral election. The slogan was immoral in the extreme, playing to the worst of racist politics…this from the patrician liberal Deardorff who would lull himself into a rhapsody by playing old JFK tapes. In a case where the message became in fact the candidate, the message so narrowed the contest and so inflamed the whites with racist anger, prompting a rejoinder of black fury which triggered even more white animosity that Epton perceived he could really win this thing, the angry slogan itself converted this placid tolerant guy into a reincarnation of Lester Maddox who was excited when white audiences with clenched fists arose to cheer when he entered their halls. In fact it is an article of faith that those in charge of the Epton campaign, seeing the anger in the streets engendered by this slogan which inflamed their candidate, subtly sat on their hands in the crucial last days in order to spare the city an ordeal by fire.

But the campaign was a success for the liberal—and as we discovered ultra-pragmatic--John Deardorff: he collected his commissions. Have you had any experience with professional political consultants—good or bad? Tell me.


  1. Excellent, excellent piece! A great read for those of us who have suffered through the pompous no-it-alls and a MUST read for everyone considering a run for office.

  2. Tom-
    When there are target prize ships all around (Barber, sp intended, Boxer) dissing our chief international point person, why do you screw around with this sort of local stuff?
    I am sure that you need a break, but let's hit the bastards when our ships are passing through--
    Lord Geezer Nelson

  3. Tom, It was a great read. I appreciate hearing your opinion and 'how it was' back in the day, I really do.

  4. tom, i am finishing up a book on alcohol and drug addiction recovery and i need a photo (cause i cant find one on the net) of father ignatius. would you be so kind as to email me one please at thank you, please ..